The Voyage of the St. Louis Revisited

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 9:10 AM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
C. Paul Vincent , Keene State College, Keene, NH
Few incidents related to the Holocaust are so charged as America’s response to the plight of more than 900 German Jews sailing across the Atlantic in May 1939 on the MS St. Louis.  Our perception features a refugee-laden passenger liner denied permission to dock in Havana, sailing in circles between Cuba and Florida, and ultimately returning its passengers to a Europe verging on war.  Some allege American apathy in the face of Nazi persecution or, more perniciously, a deliberate policy by the Roosevelt Administration to obstruct Jewish immigration.  The facts do not accord well with either perspective.

My paper reflects a careful evaluation of the complex evidence (especially records from the State Department and the Joint Distribution Center) related to the episode.  Beginning with the ship’s 13 May embarkation from Hamburg and concluding with the passengers’ 17 June debarkation in Antwerp, I underscore that responsibility for the outcome in Cuba rests with that country’s chief immigration officer, with the shipping company that owned the St. Louis, and with the disposition of the JDC’s lead negotiator, Lawrence Berenson.  Subtle though it was, American officials in Havana devoted considerable time and effort to assure a positive outcome.  As the ship returned to Europe, the combined effort of the JDC and a key State Department representative skillfully achieved a breakthrough: the refugees were distributed between Belgium, Holland, France, and Britain.  In the twilight preceding the Second World War, that outcome was celebrated by the passengers.

I aim not so much to exonerate American actions as to pose a more nuanced representation of the efforts made on behalf of the refugees and how those efforts appeared and were judged in the summer of 1939.  The horrors of the future could not be foreseen by those directly engaged in this episode.

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